Legal innovation: Are you a monkey or butterfly?

Legal innovation: Are you a butterfly or a monkey?

Adam Curphey

I think it’s pretty safe to say that legal innovation and technology are major topics with which the legal profession is grappling, and has been grappling for years. As the pressure to innovate increases, there is more pressure on lawyers to take on new skills.

In a world where being good at law is seen as the basic minimum, I have watched junior lawyers in particular being told that they have to not only be excellent legal advisers, but also project managers, software developers, business analysts, business development and marketing specialists, process engineers, and communications experts. I’m sure you have heard someone talk about these “lawyers of the future”. But the lawyer of the future is a fallacy, one that is not fair to lawyers who are still expected to master law along with all these other things within a profession that is already pressured and stressful.

It is also unfair to those who join the profession from other routes and are immediately labelled as “non-lawyers”. We need to work together if we want to advance legal services for our clients (whether those clients are those of a law firm or the business units you work with as an in-house lawyer). In short we need collaboration across multidisciplinary teams of professionals with different skills. But one fundamental often missing in outlining all of these skills is how they actually work together.

This article was written by Adam Curphey, Adam is a Senior Manager of Innovation at Mayer Brown

This is where I turn to children’s literature. One particular favourite in our house is called “Monkey Puzzle” by Julia Donaldson (of The Gruffalo fame). The basic gist of the book is that a young monkey has lost his mother. Enter a helpful butterfly who offers to track down said parent. However, the monkey’s instructions to the butterfly keep leading to miscommunications. When the monkey says his mum is big, the butterfly leads him to an elephant. When he says she lives in the trees, the butterfly suggests that she might be a parrot. And when he says she has brown fur, he is introduced to a bat. By this point the monkey is feeling pretty annoyed, leading to this exchange:

“Butterfly, butterfly, can’t you see?
None of these creatures looks like me!”

“You never told me she looked like you!“

“Of course I didn’t! I thought you knew!”

The butterfly reveals that she had no reason to think the monkey looked like his mother, because her babies are caterpillars who bear little resemblance to a butterfly. Miscommunication cleared up, the monkey is reunited with his mother.

I apologise for the spoilers, but in law we’re still trapped in a loop of miscommunication. Some of us are monkeys, who make assumptions that those with whom we are working intrinsically understand what we are trying to convey. Others are butterflies, who aren’t asking the right questions to get the information we need. This leads to law firms developing client portals without ever once asking the client what they need or bottoming out the problem to be solved.

It means lawyers working with software developers and both thinking the other understands their world, meaning the first few versions of a desired tool being wrong and drawing out the development process. Or it can be that the wrong people are looking at buying a new piece of technology and have not asked any of the questions that would be relevant for the IT or risk teams to know for implementation, meaning that the procurement process pretty much has to go back to the drawing board once those teams are involved and the purchase may not happen at all – leading to frustration on all sides.

We need to give monkeys training on the basics of the professions and skillsets of those with whom they will interact to ensure they are delivering all the pertinent information and butterflies training on how to ask the right questions of others. Both sides need to embrace and understand empathy and emotional intelligence. We also need people who can bridge the gap between the monkeys and butterflies and understand both so that these miscommunications do not happen. That means that we need to get more people-centric. We need to understand our workforce, what their skills are, and how they want to progress. Some of that is allowing lawyers to take non-traditional routes through innovation, legal design, and process engineering. Some of it means elevating those from other professions into senior positions within law firms so that they can collaborate with the lawyers to deliver legal services in the most relevant and useful manner and context for clients. And it means preparing everyone for more collaboration.

The language of innovation is shifting toward being more people-centric. There is much talk about empathy and emotional intelligence within the law, and purpose and wellbeing beyond that.

We need only look at roles like Sophia Adams Bhatti as Global Head of Purpose and Impact at Simmons & Simmons, or Slaughter & May’s new policy regarding working hours and email management, or Browne Jacobson’s partnership with the O Shaped Lawyer. Skills frameworks are available for those wondering how to accommodate “soft” human skills, whether that be in the “People” of the Delta Competency Model, the human skills of the O Shaped Lawyer, or the Law+People chapter of my own book on the Legal Team of the Future.

If the innovation that has been promised for the past decade (and more) is actually going to happen then we have to focus on our people to empower them to make that change. Those are big changes, but we can start with a little one. Next time you work with someone on a project, take a moment to think: are you a monkey, assuming others possess knowledge that you have not given them? Or are you a butterfly, not asking the right questions to get all the information you need? The first step to fixing a problem is identifying that it exists, and a little self-reflection never hurts.

Adam Curphey is a Senior Manager of Innovation at Mayer Brown and the author of “The Legal Team of the Future: Law+ Skills” which is available on Amazon in the UK, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the US and elsewhere now.